Digital Cinema: How to Make Your Mini DV Look Like Film

The 14th Annual Films Arts Festival of Independent Cinema screened the very first video I ever shot on Mini DV. When I went to pick-up my VHS viewing copy from the festival’s organizers, the Film Arts Foundation (FAF) in San Francisco, the curator congratulated me and asked if I "shot on 16 or 35" (16mm film or 35mm film). I almost fell down.

It would have cost me hundreds of dollars to shoot the three-minute piece on 16mm and thousands on 35mm. This short put me back $10 ($5 for the Mini DV tape and $5 for a pack of cigarettes for a prop) and a favor from an actor friend. The final ingredient came from asking a film school classmate how I could make the hard look of video seem more like film.

Since that day, I have researched, experimented, implemented and taught what is called the "Film Look." Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that I am necessarily against the look of video, I just like the look of film for the majority of projects I shoot.

There are a lot of plug-ins and software options which will help your video look more like film (and help you get closer to your limit on your credit card), but we’ll stick with the tools you already have: a video camera and the editing software on your computer.

The Saint on Film

My good friend Juliana Marchand wanted to shoot her graduate thesis project, La Santa, on Super 16 film (the widescreen version of 16mm), but, like most graduate students, she didn’t have the money. She came to me and asked if I could shoot her vision on Mini DV and give it the look of film. Here is what we did.

Aspect Ratio

First, we decided on the aspect ratio of our "film." Juliana and I agreed to shoot in a 1.85:1 ratio, which is a standard film aspect ratio. It’s the ratio of the width of a frame to its height. When people see letterboxed footage (black bars across the top and bottom of the screen on a 1.33:1 television), they automatically think of film. I also like the wide canvas this lets me work with as well.

Letterboxing bars are easy to create in a painting program and easy to add as overlays in your video editing software. Some editing software comes with built-in letterbox effect that masks your video with the click of a button.

You’ll certainly want to be able to frame your shots for 16:9 during your shooting. One way to do this is to create some 16:9-framed video with your software and bring it back into your camcorder. Then you can use a dry-erase marker or gaffers tape to mask the LCD screen. Do not try to tape cardboard to the front of your lens, however, since it makes a soft letterbox that doesn’t work very well at all.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend creating a letterbox with the 16:9 setting in a consumer camera, unless it shoots a true anamorphic widescreen image. If you simply crop to 16:9 in your camera, you can never recover the top and bottom footage. Instead, shoot the entire 4:3 frame, and then letterbox in post. This is much safer and gives you more options later if you change your mind or want to distribute your movie in a different format.

Sharpness and Filter

We also employed two techniques to soften the harsh look of video. First, I lowered the sharpness of our Canon GL1 by decreasing the C.Sharpness value in the menu by two units. Many consumer cameras allow you to alter the sharpness: consult your manual. Second, I bought a Tiffen Black Pro-Mist 1 Effect Glass Filter. This $45 investment helped tone down the sharpness, soften the image and add some highlight flare. If the budget is tight, use a pair of sheer panty hose and stretch them over the lens. You should definitely test all of these methods before you go on the actual shoot. You can also consider performing a very light sharpness adjustment using a filter in your editing environment, but this will add significantly to the rendering time of your project. I actually prefer the in-camera adjustments to any of the filters I have used.


Once we were on the set, we incorporated two conventions borrowed from over one hundred years of filmmaking: controlled lighting and controlled depth of field. I will admit, both of these techniques intimidated me in my early years of shooting, but after experimenting with some simple lights and camera settings, I realized it was not so difficult. I also studied scenes from my favorite films with the sound down and my finger on the rewind button so I could analyze light, shadow and focus.


There are many different styles of lighting, but I suggest you start by learning the three-point lighting system, which you can read up on in this magazine’s monthly Light Source column. Learn the basics and then experiment. Proper studio lights are ideal, but halogen shop lights or photoflood lights will work. Outside, you can bounce sunlight with car windshield reflectors or white poster board. Just about every single film you spend money to go see manipulates and controls light very carefully. If you want your video to look like them, you need to control your light as well.

Depth of Field

One way cinematographers manipulate what their audience will concentrate on within the frame is by manipulating the depth of field. Depth of field is the range of distance in front of the lens (e.g. from four feet to eight feet) that stays in focus at a given aperture setting and focal length. At its deepest, everything from the closest object to the camera to the farthest from it is in focus. The more you zoom (telephoto) the shallower the depth of field. When I want a shallow depth of field, I place the camera as far as I can from the subject (on a tripod of course), have the subject stand at least ten feet from the background and zoom in to compose my shot. This puts the subject in focus and put objects as close as five feet in front or behind them out of focus. You’ll see this technique in almost every film you watch, but rarely in projects shot in video.

Opening the iris (aperture) will also give you a shallower depth of field. An easy way to achieve this is to use neutral density (ND) filters (either an in-camera option or a screw-on filter) to cut down on the intensity of light entering your camera, thus forcing the iris to open. You can also reduce the exposure by increasing the shutter speed, which will allow you to open the iris more.

Contrast Ratio

One serious difference between film and video concerns contrast ratio. Film can handle a greater ratio of bright to dark than video can. With video, a dark shirt on a light-skinned person in a dark room is not going to work. Video cameras cannot show details in extremely bright and extremely dark objects in the same frame well. If you expose to capture the details in the bright part of the image, you will often crush the details in the dark. Though there are some cameras that may mitigate this limitation with film-like gamma curves, there isn’t a lot you can do about it except be conscious of the limitation and try not to have a huge range of brightness values in your shot.

Many Other Methods

These are the main methods we used to make our Mini DV short La Santa look like it was shot on film. There are many other aspects we could have played with, including: color correction, adding film-style grain, manipulating the gamma, shooting in PAL (25fps), frame blending, frame mode setting, adjusting shutter speed, edit with cuts and cross dissolves only and de-interlacing, to name a few. Good audio will help sell the effect and you could even use a damaged film filter (such as hair in the gate, scratches or dust), if that’s the effect you want.

We entered La Santa in about fifteen festivals. It was accepted in over half and won five awards. Most of the success of this short is due to Juliana’s writing, directing and the efforts of our crew. I was most pleased, however, when a critic or fellow filmmaker leaned toward me at a screening and asked if I shot it on 16 or 35.

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